Today the TES online magazine has published an article entitled ‘Colleges should be key in widening access to University’. I agree with the article by Julia Belgutay but don’t believe it goes far enough. There is of course a vital role to be played by Further Education establishments in offering degrees or indeed foundation courses that act as gateways into Higher Education. However with such thinking comes the risk that qualifications such as degrees are treated as being something that operates in isolation of business and the world of paid work. At the beginning of this week a colleague and I had the privilege of spending a morning with a group of senior leaders from a local University including the Head of Engineering. At first my colleague and I were concerned that we had been mistaken for the Directors of a major business offering hundreds of jobs every year. In fact up until two years ago we were measured as a micro enterprise and now as a small business we have a team of around a dozen employees some of who arrived in our business with a passion for the work but absolutely no qualifications or training in the area we specialise in. One of our major contracts is with the same University, but this wasn’t a meeting to discuss the contract, it was a meeting to discuss how we as a SME could work with the University to assist them in shaping their courses and also how they could assist us in training our staff by breaking down some of their courses into modules that would make sense to our technicians and engineers. One of the topics for our discussion was how the traditional range of Apprenticeships are not flexible enough for industries such as our own, but also that they don’t go far enough in terms of the knowledge required. We left the meeting with a commitment on our side to mentor some future students, and to accept some student placements, and a commitment on the side of the University to make their modular courses more accessible to us and to help us identify if there are gaps between their modular courses and the areas of specialism that our industry needs, in order to deliver high quality service to institutions such as theirs. We also discussed ways in which their staff or some of their students who are skilled at imparting knowledge could potentially fit into the in house training which we attempt to provide, and at the same time better understand how businesses like ours work. As part of the tour we discovered how technology was being applied to a certain set of issues and core ideas, but for unclear reasons this was not connected to the outside world as effectively as it appeared it could be. Whilst that was not an area of work our business has any involvement in, it showed that the process of connecting education and business together has a long way to go, but it is vital if we are to provide a clear set of options and entry points to young and not so young people whose career is limited due to the education choices they made in the past. The fact is that in the past they would have lacked the focus on the subjects that today are at the forefront of the work they are carrying out, but without the formal training or qualifications that our education providers can offer them. Along with the discussions we had with the University, we also agreed to try to work together to improve linkages with the Further Education providers who are mentioned in Julia’s piece so that some of the entry level skills which we also need to provide to our staff can be obtained from Colleges in partnership with the higher level skills such as complex engineering.
The reality is that our meeting on Monday, was a risk taken by the University to allocate valuable time from the diaries of their senior management, and at the same time to take out two people from a company of 12 was a big commitment by us. However the end result appears to have been a good one and if we can build on the positive outcome of the meeting and see some genuinely positive outcomes for both the organisations then it will have been a morning well spent for all of our staff and a number of future graduates who progress through their degrees with our help.